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Published: October 29th 2008
From Xi’an we caught a flight to Chengdu. We contemplated the train, but it was going to take 14 hours and wasn’t really any cheaper. We didn’t have any preconceptions about Chengdu but it soon became obvious that it was a really big city, with 5 ring roads and a population of about 10 million.
The main reason for visiting Chengdu is the Panda Breeding Research Centre (and we also wanted to sort out a trip to Tibet). The problem with pandas is that they aren’t too fond of each other and consequently there aren’t very many baby pandas! This is a worry as they are an endangered species so the breeding centre basically specialises in panda IVF. It’s been really successful, although most of the pandas have to remain in captivity as they would not be able to survive in the wild. Another thing about the panda is that it will only eat a certain type of bamboo. The bamboo doesn’t give the panda that much energy and it’s hard to digest, so it has to spend quite a lot of time eating and then it goes to sleep for ages. So you have to try to get to
the centre early or else they are all sleeping!
We weren’t sure what the centre would be like but it’s really nice and there is lots of room for the pandas and they have tried to make the enclosures as natural as possible. You get to see adult pandas which live on their own, young adults which live in groups and baby pandas. Some of the babies are in incubators as they are so tiny and the older ones are in a big cot altogether - they are really, really cute. You have to look at them through glass as they can’t get human germs and you can’t take any pics as their eyes are not developed properly. As we were oooing and ahhhing over the baby pandas, I saw someone very familiar in the reflection. It was Dan and Claire, Andy worked with Dan in London!! They were holidaying in China. After getting over the shock of bumping into them (we haven’t seen them for about 4 years!) we walked around the centre together catching up. It’s a small world!
We arranged to meet Dan and Claire for dinner and had the traditional hotpot. This is a
really big pot that is filled with oil and chilli and heated up. You then choose what you want to cook in it. Off the very extensive and adventurous menu - including lung and stomach - we played it safe and ordered beef and veggies and then tried to catch the food with chopsticks and eat it, but the intense chilli flavour kept building up so it was difficult at times. It was really nice to see Dan and Claire, a great surprise, and we will catch up again in the UK before another 4 years passes!!
Dafo, the biggest Buddha in the world
From Chengdu we decided to take a day trip to see the biggest Buddha in the world, at Leshan. Dafo faces out towards three rivers and was built by monks. He is 71 metres tall. The idea was that the Buddha image would warn any sailors of the dangers and also the rock that was excavated whilst making it, was put into the estuary to make it easier for ships to navigate. The best way to see it is from a boat. We got on the boat and were immediately informed that we had
to wear a lovely orange lifejacket - nice! Everyone was herded onto the roof of the boat and off we went to see Dafo. The boat was typically Chinese in that there was a loud hailer blurting out information in high pitch Chinese and everyone was pushing to get the best view - we now understood why the lifejackets were compulsory! Dafo is very impressive and he has a very calm and serene look. The boat trip didn’t last long so we went to see him close up. Again, this was a very Chinese experience with hundreds and hundreds of Chinese tourists queuing to get onto the steps to go down to see him close up. It took ages to get down but it was worth it as Dafo is very impressive and the temples and gardens are also very nice.
The traffic in Chengdu is terrible. There is no subway and to the uninitiated the buses are impossible to work out. The taxis are plentiful and really cheap but this means that they are always taken - it had taken us an hour to flag down a taxi to go and meet Dan and Claire!
So we decided that we should explore the city by bike (although I was a little bit nervous about this as there seem to be no traffic rules and cars, buses and trucks seem to go where they please!) After a shaky start, I got the hang of it and we managed to see quite a lot of the sights, the Wenshu Yuan temple, the Tibetan area and the Mao statue. I really wouldn’t recommend that anyone with a respiratory problem visits Chinese cities though as the pollution is terrible everywhere that you go.
All over China there are sacred mountains that pilgrims climb. We had decided that we wanted to do this and chose Mount Emei. As lots of Chinese visit the mountain, it’s really quite organised and there are buses to various points from where you can start a walk. Temples are dotted all over the mountain side (you can stay in the temples if you wish) and the routes are well signposted. For the first afternoon, we took a bus half way up and walked up to the next bus stop - a walk of about 3 hours all uphill on paths consisting
solely of steps! It really was atmospheric (and a bit like being on the set of the TV series Monkey) with bridges over gorges, lakes and temples. It did start to rain though and we ended up soaking wet!
The next day we decided to take the bus to the top bus station and then walk the 5km to the top. The path was more or less straight up again using steps. The mountain is also famous for “joking monkeys” but we hadn’t seen any the previous day because of the rain. We weren’t so lucky this time though and a huge monkey launched itself at us. I ran away screaming and it went for Andy with the rucksack bearing its teeth and hissing. Andy gave it a good kick and it disappeared but we were quite wary of them after that. The climb was really hard and we seemed to be the only ones going up. Everyone else was going down as you could catch a cable car to the top from the bus station. Still we were pleased that did the climb when we burst through the cloud to find ourselves on top of the mountain looking
down at a blanket of cloud and over at a temple perched on top of an adjacent mountain. It was very pretty and satisfying to know we’d done the slog to the top. You can do a 3 day trek all the way from base of the mountain, but I think it’d take a week to recover and we decided we’d better save all our energy for Tibet!
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